The painting Dutchman, Vincent Van Gogh, chopped off his own ear and presented it as a “gift of flesh” to a woman who had been savaged by a rabid dog, according to a new theory based on a doctor’s note.
You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to be familiar with the tale of how Van Gogh descended into full-blown insanity, chopped off his own earlobe, dropped it off at a nearby brothel, and left it in the care of a prostitute called “Rachel.”
People often point to the story as proof of the artist as tortured genius ideology, but apparently, there’s a little more to the story than meets the eye.
The exact reason as to why the wild-eyed artist engaged in a little bit of extreme self-mutilation can be revealed for the first time, according to experts who have uncovered crucial medical evidence.
Apparently, Van Gogh didn’t just chop off his earlobe, but he cut off his entire ear. And it wasn’t an act of insanity, but an empathetic, if misguided gesture on behalf of the sensitive soul who wanted to make a “gift of flesh” to help heal a woman who had been attacked by a crazed dog.
No doubt Van Gogh’s most famous handiwork will now be seen in a different light after a handwritten letter, which gives a firsthand account of the notorious incident, has been made available to the public.
The letter, written by Dr. Félix Rey, who treated Van Gogh’s wound in December 1888, contains sketches and notes which detail how the sunflower painter didn’t just cut off a section of his ear, as hitherto believed, but hacked it off completely.
And the woman who became the recipient of the bloody and severed ear was not a prostitute called Rachel but a lady named Gabrielle, who worked as a humble maid at the brothel in Arles, southern France. It was a job she took to pay off the medical expenses incurred after being viciously attacked by a dog the previous year.
The Telegraph reports that the letter was uncovered by former art teacher Bernadette Murphy, who has spent seven years tracing the family of the girl who was given the gift of Van Gogh’s severed ear.
After in-depth cross-referencing of records from that period, Murphy also believes the painter may have been offering Gabrielle his flesh in a noble but bizarre attempt to heal the wounded woman.
“She [Gabrielle] had a very nasty scar on her arm following the bite.
“Van Gogh was somebody who was very touched by people in difficulty. I feel that he wanted to give her this gift of flesh.”
Murphy has promised Gabrielle’s family that she will never reveal their exact identity. She is also set to publish a book of her findings entitled Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story.
The letter from Dr. Rey can be currently seen for the first time at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in an exhibition, titled On the Verge of Insanity.
The exhibition hopes to demonstrate how Van Gogh was plagued by illness and stricken by a debilitating malady that left him “utterly confused and unable to work for days and sometimes weeks at a time.”
Experts will argue that Van Gogh’s striking art wasn’t driven by his illness but existed in spite of it.
Although he never made an official diagnosis, Dr. Rey believes Van Gogh’s illness was a form of epilepsy aggravated by drinking too much coffee and alcohol and eating too little food.
Cutting off his own ear marked the beginning of the end for Van Gogh, who would take his own life less than two years later.
After two weeks in a hospital and being prescribed bromide, a 19th-century sedative, Van Gogh suffered a series of further breakdowns before voluntarily admitting himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy after it dawned on him that he couldn’t risk living alone anymore.
Spending a year there, painting became Van Gogh’s remedy, but after leaving the institution, it would only be a matter of months before he committed suicide.
Aged just 38 when he died, Van Gogh was largely unknown to the world at large and unnoticed and unloved by the art critics of his time.
So it would probably come as something of a surprise to the Post-Impressionist that, over one hundred years later, he has become so famous that even his severed ear is the subject of a major exhibition and a new book.
Such is life! Or, as the great man said on his deathbed, “This sadness will last forever.”
[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]